I had never seen it. The Incredible Shrinking Women with Lily Tomlin. It was made in 1981 when I was in middle school and it wasn’t a movie that young man who was trying to grow his first peach fuzz moustache would go see. I was off watching Raiders of the Lost Ark and Taps. So 35 years after it hit the big screen, we need a fun movie for the kids to watch and The Incredible Shrinking Woman was suggested.
The premise of the movie, if you haven’t seen it yet this is a spoiler alert, was that consumer product were becoming more and more chemically developed and when all of the various products were combined with all of their various chemicals, a reaction started to shrink Lily’s character to a microscopic level and then at the end of the movie she grew back after swimming in another puddle of chemicals. It was fun and funny, but that isn’t was stuck in my mind after it was over.
I had read a book, Grain Brain by David Perlmutter, MD one of the studies that he quoted was the rise of the number of diagnosed diabetics. The chart started tracking the slow, but accelerating increase in 1980 around the same time as the movie.
Then I found this passage and two graphs from the NCBI and on Wikipedia about the increase of Americans who match the criteria of obesity as both adults, youth and teens.
“The prevalence of obesity changed relatively little during the 1960s and 1970s, but it increased sharply over the ensuing decades—from 13.4% in 1980 to 34.3% in 2008 among adults and from 5% to 17% among children during the same period.1–2,9–10
You know what also happened in 1981? My family purchased our first microwave oven and in my opinion the way people started to eat changed forever. It changed not because of the oven itself, but because the flavors that we were putting into it were no longer controlled by my mother. By no means was my mom a great cook, but we ate fresh most days as she spent the afternoon with her cookbooks putting together a diner for the family. She added ingredients to flavor the meat and bling up the veggies, but that was about it.
After the microwave showed up, the food industry seemed to change. Before, there were TV dinners that took time to heat up in the regular oven and we ate them on special occasions when there was a TV special on like Frosty the Snowman and Charlie Brown Christmas so we are talking like 4 times a year. But now someone else was in charge of the ingredients. A food scientist was working with a product manager who was tasked with increasing sales to make a CEO look good and fatten up the wallets of investors. Health was no longer the top of the list. Profits were and maximizing the take was contingent on people buying that food in great quantities because they just couldn’t eat one.
This NYT piece is a great read on the boom of the food industry. Guess what is one of the first dates listed in the article?
” A chemist by training with a doctoral degree in food science, Behnke became Pillsbury’s chief technical officer in 1979 and was instrumental in creating a long line of hit products, including microwaveable popcorn.”
America has an identity problem.
The nation was started by people who left the comfort of Europe to forge a new life. Then America was expanded by people moving west to work towards new opportunities. Then America strove to become a great world power. Then after WWII, that all seemed to change.
The message was no longer to work hard, it was to relax. Don’t rake your leaves, buy a machine to do it. Don’t scrub your clothes, buy a machine to do it. Don’t walk to work, buy a car to drive you there. Don’t slave in the kitchen, but pop something in the microwave.
50 years of taking shortcuts, finding the easy way around and defining the American way as relaxing and being less physical. For almost the first 200 years of our country, this was not the American way. The American way was being proud of what you created through labor, sweat, struggles and hard effort.
But, those days are gone. People work in office buildings and shop for pre-assembled food like products, but all is not lost.
Why do people run, do triathlons and challenge themselves in athletic events? They do it to see what they are made of. They do it to see what is possible. To see what they can accomplish when things are physically tough. It is a part of the human DNA. Active people lived 10,000 years ago because it made them strong and fed. Allow that part of you that is deeply ingrained in the human instinct, that, historically, is deeply a part of what it means to be an American, to be found and challenged. I believe that this is an action that will start to heal us on many different levels.
In the final moments of The Incredible Shrinking Women, as the credits start to roll, the script writers inserted a moment that is an eerie foreshadowing of our modern situation. Lily Tomlin’s character starts to grow uncontrollably.